Steve Woolgar: "It could be otherwise: the case of ironic outcomes"

The Higher Seminar and Office for History of Science

Steve Woolgar, Linköping University and Oxford University: "It could be otherwise: the case of ironic outcomes"

“It could be otherwise” (ICBO) in liberal social sciences and humanities provides a slogan for a large and varied range of provocations. It is the basis for disturbing, unsettling, troubling, destabilising, and deflating pretensions to certainty, grandiose theorising, abstractions and conceptual complacency. Science and Technology Studies (STS) scholars have been adept in applying this maxim to a wide variety of facts, knowledge, technologies and claims both within and beyond scientific knowledge and technical capacity. “It could be otherwise” can be worked in relation to beliefs, politics, culture—as a political move, the impetus for reconsidering normative practices and how they might be done differently. But what, if any, are the limits to this form of provocation? What happens when this approach is appropriated by other than the “good guys”, especially in an age of “post truth” and “fake” news? Should we now abandon ICBO in favour of intervening, making a difference and “world building”?

It is argued that in order to broach these questions we need to understand the importance of community performance in generating and sustaining otherwise. Community performance denotes the material semiotic practices of enacting relevant entities, and assigning expectations and accountabilities between them. The paper explores the community performance involved in an especially marked form of otherwise, namely the class of events, activities and technologies which turn out to have an effect exactly the opposite of that intended. Iconic examples include the introduction of car seat belts leading to more accidents; the breakdown of traffic lights resulting in traffic flowing more freely; recycling practices which end up consuming a greater amount of environmental resource; and so on. A close look at the practical dynamics of ironic outcomes hints at the possibility of a more nuanced sense of the politics entailed by ICBO. Using this perspective on ICBO, we venture to suggest that otherwise has far from “run out of steam”, indeed that perhaps We Have Never Been Otherwise.

Steve Woolgar is one of the most distinguished researchers in the field of Science and Technology Studies. He is among other things known for writing the hugely influential book "Laboratory Life" with Bruno Latour. He maintains an interest in current theoretical themes in Science and Technology Studies, notably agency, ontology, materiality and causality, especially as these are worked out in relation to topics such as evaluation, impact, algorithms, revelation, irony, provocation and intervention.